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BWW Review: WHITE NOISE at Studio Theatre

"White Noise" is an intense show, but it carries the intensity well.

BWW Review: WHITE NOISE at Studio Theatre

Despite the recent Omicron wave, theaters have worked hard to adapt - after all, as the old adage goes, "the show must go on." With proper safety precautions, of course.

Still, it's nice to be able to continue to see shows live and in person this season, especially now that DC's mask and vaccine mandates, reflective of those theaters long ago adopted, are in full effect. In fact, I stand by my assessment in the fall that I feel safer in theaters than most other indoor spaces these days.

Not that theater itself is "safe," and thank goodness for that, or it would be quite boring. Part of the fun of theater is getting to take (non-covid-related) risks. And Studio Theatre's latest production, White Noise, certainly does feel like a bit of a risk, albeit a fruitful one.

Suzan-Lori Parks' latest play is a thought-provoking look at society and human nature, examining the systems we live within and our understandings of self. Inspired by current events as well as Parks' own earlier works, White Noise pushes its characters to incredibly dark places that reveal what we individually carry from our own histories as well as what we internalize from the world around us. The play follows four close college friends in their early 30s: Leo, the artist; Ralph, the college professor; Misha, host of the show, Ask a Black; and Dawn, the lawyer hoping to do good in the world. The four friends have been through a lot together between college and their adulthood, but when Leo is accosted by police during a late-night walk and is forced to confront his fear of becoming another Black man who is known only for dying at the hands of law enforcement, he comes up with an experiment that completely upends the friends' way of thinking and relating to each other - and themselves.

At the risk of a sparse review, I'm going to choose not to reveal any further details from the plot. Suffice to say, Leo's proposal dramatically shifts the friend group and their individual lives, but it also reveals sides they didn't know existed within themselves. The intense character journeys that result from this proposition are fascinating, and force the audience to examine their own perspectives as well. The climax of the show is perfectly uncomfortable to watch, which is a testament to the effectiveness of Parks' script as well as Reginald L. Douglas' wonderful direction and Adrien-Alice Hansel's thoughtful dramaturg work.

White Noise is an intense show, but it carries the intensity well. From a technical perspective, the performance is stunning. Alexander Woodward's set is clever, comprised of a rotating piece with rooms that clearly convey the characters' personalities through their surroundings - Ralph's home reflects the careful, curated taste of money while Leo's bedroom is bright and a little disheveled, showing us his artistic side as well as the impact of his sleepless nights, and the shooting range manages to look both practical and like a place the group regularly hangs out. The costumes, designed by Dominique Fawn Hill, do a good job of conveying each characters' specific personalities - and, especially in the cases of Leo and Ralph, how they shift over the course of the show - and the attention to details in Alexander Rothschild's props - down to the magazines and the show's most horrifying pieces - was careful and deliberate.

But, most notably, the acting in this production was superb - RJ Brown carries the show as Leo, whose idea sets the plot in motion, and the audience can clearly track his journey through his facial expressions and how he holds himself throughout the show. Likewise, Quinn Franzen, as Ralph, gives a nuanced performance, showing Ralph's descent from friend to enemy, and Franzen's small reveals in his tone and demeanor hint at his change for the audience long before it appears on stage, giving insight into what his character doesn't yet understand about himself. Katie Kleiger's Dawn is also nuanced, though in a very different way; from early conversations, the audience can see the internal debates and doubts she refuses to voice, and seeing them reveal themselves as she continues to grapple with her own understanding of self is fascinating. Tatiana Williams' Misha is perhaps the most intriguing to watch, given that the audience is treated to her on-camera persona, her personality around her friend group, and her own frank, stripped down monologue; toward the end of the performance, it's gratifying to see her piece these three distinct selves, all her and yet only a piece of her, into someone who is perhaps the most clear-eyed about the friends' fates, and she serves as both a proxy for the audience in her understanding and sadness as well as the one trying to pull everyone back from the brink, resulting in perhaps the most heartbreaking performance of a deep-cutting production.

White Noise is the kind of theater that everyone hopes to experience - it grips each member of the cast and audience a bit differently, but no less fully, and makes viewers take some much-needed but often avoided introspection. How do we define ourselves? How do we relate to others? What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how do they stand up under pressure? As I said, White Noise isn't a safe production, but it's one that's truly moving because of that. It's the kind of production where the audience almost hesitates to clap at the end because we're so immersed in the world and subsequent introspection the performance has fostered that there's a need to shake oneself back into reality. It's truly a powerful experience, and absolutely one worth having.

Studio Theatre's White Noise is playing through February 20th, 2022. Performance run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Content warnings for depictions of slavery and racially motivated violence and manipulation, partial nudity, simulated intercourse, gunshot sounds, racially charged language, the use of herbal tobacco, and flashing lights. More information about the show, cast & creative team, and ticket purchases can be found on the Studio Theatre Website.

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